My parents were constantly drumming this quotation into me. I can’t remember now why. It might have been because I was a miserable little blighter. Or if might have been because they were getting over the none too subtle message that little boys just didn’t cry, whilst little girls were accepted, even pampered, if they blubbed all over the place. As I say, I simply can’t remember, too many event-filled years have passed, too much water has flowed under that proverbial bridge.
For what ever reason, the message stuck with me. If you laugh, you make others laugh. If you cry, no one cares a jot.
I do recall trying to put that into practice one day. I must have been about ten. I was in a crowded lift (elevator) descending to the street level in a rather posh hotel in central London. Silence reigned, that embarrassed hush in which everyone does his or her best to avoid everyone else. What a golden opportunity to see if it worked. Plucking up considerable courage, and metaphorically girding my loins, as the Good Book has it, I fractured the silence by starting to laugh.
I can tell you, I was horribly embarrassed. This was almost as bad as your tummy making rumbling noises in church. However, feeling in a highly experimental mood, I persisted. I turned my initially indecisive chuckles into youthful belly laughter.
I glanced over my shoulder to see if it worked, to see if everyone was going to join me in a chorus of spontaneous hilarity.
No one did. Everyone looked incredibly embarrassed, and exceedingly disapproving. I felt my laughter die a painful death within me. I lapsed into a puzzled silence. It didn’t work. Yet my parents maintained it did. They insisted that if you laugh, the whole world laughs with you. But it didn’t work with this lot. Oh, dear, no. They all looked as though they had done something rather nasty in their trousers. They all studiously avoided me as they departed from the constriction of the lift, to merge with the busyness of the hotel’s concourse.
Puzzled, and feeling that my errand to purchase a selection of newspapers for my father could wait, I pressed the ‘up’ button that would take me back to our hotel room again.
My father raised a questioning eyebrow when he saw that I was sans newspapers. He had that sort of look on his face that suggested I had spent the money on ice creams and was returning for a refill. I shook the money in the pocket of my shorts to put his mind at rest on that score.
“It doesn’t work,” I grumbled, feeling annoyed that those smartly dressed businessmen should have let me down so badly.
“What doesn’t work? Do you mean the lift is out of action? If it is, you’ll have to walk down.”
I nodded. I hated it when my father spoke to me as if I were a simpering idiot. I knew all about stairs. Why, we even had some at home. I explained in childishly simple terms, as to an idiot, or a normal adult, what the problem was. It had to be in extremely simple terms as my father desperately wanted to get stuck into the business section of The Times and was being deprived of this essential activity by his son’s untimely intransigence.
“Wrong time, wrong method,” he snapped, as though hectoring one of his staff for performing badly. “You have to await for the correct moment, then you have to get their attention, then you must be careful of your timing, then you have to…”
I’d lost interest by this time. If it was as difficult as that, it didn’t seem much fun, and I had much more important things to do.
“Consider the stage comedian,” my father persisted. “He has to get his audience’s attention, then he has to play it as a musician plays his instrument. He can’t simply toss out jokes anyhow and expect people to laugh at him. It doesn’t work that way. It’s quite an art.”
“But the whole world…” I grumbled.
“It’s just a saying. An over-simplification.” He eyed me carefully. “But the overall truth is there. If you are happy, really happy…not just make-belief happy…then something of that happiness naturally rubs off to the people around you. You don’t have to work at it. It just happens automatically. However, if you are sad, no one wants to know you. You will find yourself being avoided.”
“They avoided me when I laughed in that lift,” I reminded.
“Yes, because no one expects jocularity in a lift. It was the wrong place and the wrong time.” He smiled. “Nor was it genuine happiness, and they sensed that. They most probably thought you were trying to take the mickey out of them. And no one likes that, you know.”
“I suppose not,” I agreed thoughtfully.
“Then if that’s sorted out,” my father remarked patiently, picking at the corner of his desk diary, “then it’s time to fetch the latest newspapers…”
I couldn’t see how smiling came into this bit. It was cold outside.
“Now,” my father suggested in that tone of voice which he used when his sense of humor had deserted him.
I shrugged and sallied forth, jangling the money in the pocket of my shorts which, I knew, irritated people terribly. After all, those were the days when children were supposed to be seen and not heard. Vicious, self-assertive little brats hadn’t been invented then. I had no intention of laughing. It didn’t work. I would be the epitome of seriousness. Perhaps they would enjoy that.
That afternoon, my father and I went down in the lift together, leaving my mother nursing one of her eternal headaches. The lift was packed. He bent down and whispered, “Laughing time,” in my ear, then said, “Nice day,” in that innocently English way that the English use when trying to be friendly – but not too friendly. Then, having got them all on his side, he burst out laughing, glancing round as if defying the others not to laugh too.
Smiles slowly appeared on people’s faces. Rather cautious ones, it was true. But he’d actually broken through the stuffy English reserve.
He nudged me in the ribs, and I joined him, supplying a treble counterpoint to his bass merriment. And do you know? By the time that lift’s doors slid open at the ground floor, everyone was smiling. Everyone spoke or nodded to us as they left.
“See what I mean?” my father asked me.
I nodded. He’d certainly cheered them up. He’d provided a brief glimmer of light in an otherwise dull English summer’s day.
“If we’d cried, then they would have turned away from us, embarrassed out of their tiny minds. It’s not necessary to be laughing all the time,” he reminded me. “People will think you are the village idiot, if you do. Being friendly, smiling at people is enough to set the ball rolling. Doing so, puts people in a good mood, so they naturally pass it on. And if enough people pass it on then, in time, the whole world will begin to laugh too.”
I guided my father in the direction of the shop where the best ice creams were sold. I smiled, hoping that by so doing I would put him in a good mood.
He laughed, clearly understanding my surreptitious move.
I laughed back. Yes, I thought to myself. It really is catching! Laugh and the whole world laughs with you…
– Edmund Markinson